John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Could the smelly stuff coming from the tap be standard in the future?
For the past week, my tap water in Oakland has tasted like steamed onion with an aftertaste of dank mildew.
I'm not the only who's noticed an alarming decline in quality. Locals have compared its bouquet to "chicken fat" and "fish tank water." News site Berkeleyside reports folks also think it tastes "metallic" and similar to "raw meat." On Yik Yak, people are complaining the bilious liquid is hindering their caffeine intake and even personal hygiene:
Hundreds of complaints from all over the East Bay have flooded official channels. So what's up? Did a herd of deer drown in a nearby reservoir? Not quite, but the source of the funk is biological. As referenced in that last Yik Yak post, it's an algae bloom, thriving in the Pardee Reservoir 80 miles east of Oakland.
In normal years, East Bay residents get their water from the cool, deep layers of the reservoir. But with the megadrought lowering lake levels everywhere in California, this year the water is coming from warmer, shallower portions of Pardee, which so happen to be fine breeding grounds for microorganisms. (This is being done to preserve colder water for spawning salmon.)
That's what's causing the foul taste—millions of lifeless, floating eukaryotes, kidnapped from their balmy homes to be thrown down your gullet. (Now don't you feel bad?)
The smelly H2O is still "safe to drink and use," says the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which oversees water for 1 million-plus people in the region. The agency has "temporarily" returned to drawing water from the deep reservoir to mollify customers. But it warns Bay residents that they could see a reappearance, or reappearances, of the bog water as the horrid drought rolls on.
Here's the utility's director and its spokesperson, Andy Katz and Abby Figueroa, relaying the nauseating news to the San Francisco Chronicle:
EBMUD may, however, be forced to use the upper-reservoir supply again this season, Katz and Figueroa warned.
"The drought raises questions about whether this is the new normal," Katz said, adding that EBMUD might pursue other options, like siphoning water from the Sacramento River via an agreement with the Sacramento County Water Agency. It might eventually try a treatment that would improve the water's odor and taste, though that might take years to install, Katz said....
"With our dwindling water supply, there are going to be other effects of the drought," Figueroa said. "This is one of them."